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'The Lord decided to give me a second chance': A missionary's story of faith
By BETSY ANDERSON
Leota Birdsong didn't bat an eye at assisting the local “Sew n' Sews” group help residents at Islands Convalescent Center tie fleece-blanket knots during a winter group activity.
She was also quick to assist residents in making cards for their loved ones, enjoyed sharing her green thumb during a Garden Club planting project and continued to do resident room visits with her husband, Danny.
But Leota's intensive twice-daily aftercare therapy program was precedent when she was admitted to ICC on Sept. 24, 2008, after having back-to-back abdominal surgeries. She had a 16-day stay at Islands Hospital and then began her recovery.
On the agreement that she would receive care at home, Leota discharged from ICC after 33 days. But her and Danny's steadfast hearts of volunteerism did not cease.
The Birdsongs, senior Mormon missionaries from Pine Bluff, Ark., headed home Jan. 25 after completing a 23-month mission on San Juan Island through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Leota said she was feeling just fine before they came to Friday Harbor in March 2008, but in April she contacted local doctors because of swelling and pain in her side. A rapidly growing golf ball-sized cyst was found and laser surgery was scheduled. But due to unanticipated scar tissue from past surgeries, the “simple laser surgery,” Leota noted, was not so simple.
After being put in a private room for recovery from surgery, Leota said her blood sugar spiked and blood pressure dropped to unsafe levels, and she was sent to ICU. Then the second surgery took place, to clean fluid seepage and remove tissues.
“The doctor said he couldn't believe that I came back, that he thought he had lost me,” Leota said. “(The doctor) said I am a fighter toward getting well. The last thing I heard at the end of the last surgery was 'I lost her.' I felt like I was on the other side.”
She said she saw family members that had passed on and also a vague shadow of a person standing over them.
“He said that it wasn't time for me to come home because I had a mission to fulfill and that I must fulfill that call. I felt a hand brush my face and then I woke up.”
Her time was not over and her recovery had only begun.
She worked with occupational and physical therapists, doing upper and lower limb exercises. Occupational therapist Susie Willingham said when Leota arrived at ICC with slow-to-heal wounds, she was “very fatigued and had a long recovery, which made it difficult to keep her spirits up.”
She passed the test. Despite her condition, Leota said she made a decision to fight through the pain and reach her therapy goals as soon as she could, which Willingham said included wound care and improving her ability to participate in daily activities.
Quicker than anticipated, Leota's limbs strengthened and she graduated from a walker to walking on her own.
“(The therapy team) was impressed by how fast I recovered,” she said. “The ICC staff was very patient and the therapists were very professional. You have to do your part, they won't do it all for you. I strived to do all my exercises and it strengthened my body, and me spiritually, that I could do (the therapies). I did not give up.”
In early November, one week after her discharge, Leota was back — that is, to spend time with the residents. She brought a knit, multi-colored Thanksgiving turkey that she made, which she gently placed on the nurse's station to add fun fall décor. You could also catch her and her husband Danny helping the sewing club that cold season glue dry noodles and sparkles on Popsicle stick snowflakes and facilitating “Santa Bingo,” a seasonal twist to the normal game, where the board is made up of names like “elf, sleigh, candy cane and Santa Claus” instead of numbers 1–75.
“She became independent and energetic,” said Willingham, who worked with Leota through her whole recovery process. “She's the one who had the drive and motivation to get strong. And that's what it's all about. She's getting back into the community and serving others.”
The Birdsongs stayed busy “doing church work and volunteering, while devoting time to our church calling. We're missionaries and we go out and teach about Jesus Christ. We visit church members, the ones that are not active. We drive the new young missionaries – Elder Merrill and Elder Wahlquist – to places they need to go because they are on bicycles."
These four missionaries helped set up, serve, entertain and clean up during the Christmas Eve celebration at ICC for close to five hours.
Mother's Day card-making activities, Halloween spider projects, volunteer picture boards, and scrapbook projects are examples of the diverse programs facilitated by the Birdsongs. They also were participants in a high schooler's art fair, where Danny drew a picture of Jesus and framed a poem on faith to display.
The couple left the island Jan. 25, but Leota still has a rocky medical path ahead. Since April 2009, Leota has had stomach pain. Based on a recent MRI, she said a gastrointestinal doctor at St. Joseph Hospital said she was having some problems in her pancreas and liver and that they want her to see a gastrologist in Seattle.
“The doctor said that in order to get to the bottom of this, that I will need surgery, but that will prolong our stay, so we're going to see a doctor back home,” she said. “Basically, I'm finishing up my mission on the 25th of this month and I'm hanging in for that. I'd say I've been to hell and back.”
But she strongly claims that “miracles do happen.”
“Take one day at a time and never underestimate the power of God,” she said. “I thank the hospital and ICC staff for saving my life. My faith is really strong and I'm thankful the Lord decided to give me a second chance.
"Three weeks after I discharged from ICC, Rusty died," she said, referring to the late ICC administrator Rusty Pollock. "That could have been me. And we were the same age.”
This journey seems to be more than just steps; it is highlighted with a belief, according to Leota.
“(This experience) has been a miracle of faith,” she said. “You have to have faith in something. I think anybody could see that, whatever religion they are.”
The Birdsongs were acknowledged at the ICC volunteer appreciation party Jan. 21, and at a farewell potluck hosted by the LDS church Jan. 24.
Betsy Anderson is the activities director of Islands Convalescent Center. She is a former reporter for The Journal of the San Juan Islands.